The slump appears to have set in the next year in 2011 when just 139 places were offered to Year 7 children, even before successful appeals to grammar schools reduced this further. Although an OFSTED Report that year found the school to be ‘Satisfactory’ with good leadership, it is clear that parents were already voting with their feet. The headteacher resigned suddenly before a subsequent OFSTED in February 2013 that plunged the school into ‘Special Measures’, leaving the school with acute financial problems requiring 28 staff to be laid off at the end of last summer. A follow-up Monitoring Inspection in June 2013 noted that governors were unaware of the financial shortfall, and was also highly critical of Kent County Council’s failures: “Governors recognise that they have been negligent in their monitoring duties and now wish to strengthen their influence, knowledge and expertise. To this end they have sought an external review of governance from the local authority. This has not been prioritised by the local authority and no date has been offered. Leaders are still waiting to know if the local authority intends to establish an Interim Executive Board to assume responsibility for the finances and leadership of the school. The local authority’s lack of urgency in this matter is unacceptable”.
The Oasis Academy Chain had agreed to take over the school, but pulled out, probably recognising the problems were insurmountable, and Swale Academies Trust took up oversight, preparing for it to become a Sponsored Academy under their control. The second Monitoring Report just three months ago in November, is complimentary about the Trust and records: “During this monitoring visit, a new Chair of the Governing Body was elected. The governors also voted to dissolve the existing Chaucer Trust in favour of an immediate return to community status, thereby enabling the local authority to take a strategic role alongside the Executive Principal in resolving the financial difficulties reported in the first monitoring visit. Governors no longer have delegated responsibilities for the financial management of the school. Governors and the local authority share a resolute commitment to securing sustainable leadership for the school through a formal sponsorship agreement with the Swale Academies Trust and conversion to academy status... Following the judgement at the first monitoring inspection, the local authority has taken appropriate steps to ensure that the statement of action is fit for purpose. Actions in relation to the necessary points for improvement are clearly identified and within a set timescale. Local authority officers fully acknowledge the urgent need to secure a sustainable future for the school, underpinned by leadership with a proven track record of success. With this in mind, subsequent to the first monitoring visit, they took immediate action to commission the intervention of the Swale Academies Trust. They have conducted a comprehensive audit of need in relation to secondary school placements within the locality and are entirely clear of the need for this school to serve its local community. They are presently working with the Executive Principal, in frequent dialogue with the Department for Education, to move the school to academy status as quickly as possible. A plan to reorganise the school’s building stock has been agreed, with the necessary renovations and refurbishment included. Local authority officers have committed to recommend to members the underwriting of the school’s budgetary deficit in order to expedite matters. At the time of this visit, officials from the Department for Education await confirmation of this commitment in writing”.
Thus, in November last, Kent County Council appeared committed to bale out the school, in order to pass it on to Swale Academies Trust. In January it is reported that at a meeting of parents, the school and Swale Academies Trust announced that "the academisation process WOULD complete (making reference to the Oasis debacle), and that this time, the Order/Agreement had already been signed by the Secretary of State for Education – so it was all systems go for transferral to Swale Academy". But, it now appears something has happened to change its mind.
Two thoughts. Firstly, only 57 children took up places last September, in spite of the school having attracted an initial 58 first preferences. This means that 62% of the school’s 150 places in Year Seven are empty, even after the Admission Number was slashed from 235 to 150. For entry this September coming, it is reported there are just 27 first preferences, less than half of last year’s disastrous figures which surely means the school is becoming financially and practically non-viable.
Secondly, there are clearly still severe financial debts run up under the previous management, which would become the responsibility of the Local Authority in the event of the school becoming an academy. All this at a time when KCC is itself under severe financial pressure to cut back on all unnecessary expenditure.
Sadly, as is pointed out in a comment below, although academic results have recently improved in the school, it appears to late to save the school, given the dramatic fall in numbers and the financial problems. GCSE 5 A-Cs including English and maths have leapt from three consecutive poor years in the 30-40% range to 51% for summer 2013. The school also claims it is on target to improve this further for the coming summer.
The Local Authority can close the school down now it has taken it back into Community status, for there are sufficient vacant places in the Canterbury District to absorb fewer than 600 displaced students of Chaucer Technology College in September, but it would be a squeeze, with a possible need to utilise The Community College, Whitstable that has the most vacancies, along with Spires Academy. A previous article relating to Barton Court Grammar school also looks at some of the local issues. Please don't think I am simply dismissing the possible changes of school, which would be quite traumatic and future damaging for so many young people, at a critical time of their lives.
The school has extensive grounds, so much so that apparently Swale Academies Trust was able to come up with a proposition to sell 22 acres to fund a £4.7 million overhaul of the buildings. It now looks as if the land might become a significant financial asset for Kent County Council! The buildings, designed to cater for some 1500 students, currently holding 620, and with significant investment in them over the past few years are a different matter.
Ironically, if the school had completed its ambition to become an academy under the leadership of the previous Principal, then there would have been no question of closure. This also would have been the case if the Oasis scheme or the Swale Academies Trust plans to turn it into a sponsored academy had come to fruition. For the Local Authority has no powers over an academy, as can be seen in the cases of the three schools with even higher vacancy rates than Chaucer, all running at more than two thirds empty in Year 7, and all on a downward slide in terms of numbers: Oasis Academy, Hextable; Marlowe Academy; and High Weald Academy, Cranbrook. Surely, they also are all running out of funds, and indeed several have made heavy staff cuts to try and head off disaster. Bankruptcy?
Indeed only last year KCC completed a controversial secondary school closure in Deal, when the Local Authority maintained Walmer Science College was closed down, and its assets transferred to the Castle Community College, an academy. Decisions on the future of schools now clearly depend on whether they are academies. However, KCC with the responsibility for strategic planning for schools in Kent, can only make decisions on schools that are not academies. Once again, another nonsense situation because of the current chaos.
My recall of such matters goes back over nearly thirty years, and takes in just two other secondary schools closed without replacement, both because of falling rolls in their district both in Gravesham a quarter of a century ago. Two others (Wildernesse and Walmer) were effectively closed by being incorporated into more popular schools in recent years. This would be the first ever to close purely because of poor management, but I suspect won't be the last!